Saffron Baty is a third-year undergraduate student in the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds. Her degree focus is Theology & Religious Studies and as part of her final year project, decided to undertake an external placement at Leeds City Museum working on the ‘Voices of Asia’ exhibit, specifically examining Buddhism. For this Spotlight piece, Saffron interviews Antonia Lovelace – World Cultures Curator – about her work at the museum and reflects on her own time at the museum.
The Voices of Asia exhibit opened in 2014 and was deliberately chosen to represent the many Asian communities living in Leeds, with a different faith being covered each year. Faiths that have previously been featured are Sikhism, Islam and Hinduism.
I interviewed Antonia to find out more about her role as the world cultures curator, and to discover the role in which religion has played in public life. Antonia has worked for Leeds museums and galleries for over twenty years, starting her career at Glasgow museums and galleries working with a team who did a display on ‘Religion, Faith and Life’ before moving on to Leeds Museums. For Antonia, ‘the key thing is showing the different world cultures on your doorstep’ and this is evident in the ‘Voices of Asia’ gallery which aims to give a ‘gentle introduction to different aspects of everyday life in Leeds which you can bump into, and to find out about how long different faiths in Leeds have been represented’ whilst taking ‘some time to look at each faith in detail’.
Therefore, the faith in focus display looks at Buddhism in Leeds with a film accompanying the display featuring two Buddhist organisations in Leeds – the Wat Buddharam, a new Thai temple in Headingley and the Jamyang Centre which is fairly well-established in Leeds and has had a history of partnership with the museum.
Antonia told me that she believes it is important for the community to have an understanding of religion and the role it plays in public life especially in today’s climate which can be fraught with religious tension and controversy. It is exhibitions like the ‘Voices of Asia’ gallery that can help to clear up confusing concepts and even if you never ‘clear that up, at least a good proportion of people may come in and attempt to try to understand even if they don’t necessarily succeed’ whilst representing and educating about the religious community in Leeds. In the past, the museum held a multi-faith partnership project in 2009 called ‘Faith in the City’ where the Jamyang Centre was involved by hosting a ‘relics tour’ and this was the last time Buddhism was represented at the museum, so for Antonia it is important to keep ‘coming back’ to these faiths to showcase their role within public life and the changing face of faith.
Being on placement, and working alongside Antonia, has helped me to understand the complexities of being a Curator in a museum, from looking after collections, running workshops, running a database, as well as carrying out exhibition and display work. I have come to understand the role of Leeds museum in our community as a pivotal part that not only represents, but also educates on the role of religion in public life, whether this be through outreach with schools, working with different faith groups or exhibiting a particular religion through a variety of mediums. A particularly poignant moment for me during my time there was the ‘soft launch’ of the Buddhism display on the 8th December 2017. The Thai monks from the Wat Buddharam Temple in Headingley attended in what was their first visit to the museum. This was an amazing experience for not only myself, but also really demonstrated the links between different community bodies, coming together to celebrate and represent Buddhism as they experience it today in Leeds.
By Saffron Baty